For More Detail, Previously: Simulacra Levels and Their Interactions, Unifying the Simulacra Definitions, The Four Children of the Seder as the Simulacra Levels.
A key source of misunderstanding and conflict is failure to distinguish between combinations of the following four cases.
- Sometimes people model and describe the physical world, seeking to convey true information because it is true.
- Other times people are trying to get you to believe what they want you to believe so you will do or say what they want.
- Other times people say things mostly as slogans or symbols to tell you what tribe or faction they belong to, or what type of person they are.
- Then there are times when talk seems to have have gone strangely meta or off the rails entirely. The symbolic representations are mostly of the associations and vibes of other symbols. The whole thing seems more like a stream of words, associations and vibes. It sounds like GPT-4.
One can refer to these as the simulacra levels as a useful fake framework for understanding this. When looking at talk, one can ask what level or levels a statement or discussion is on, and which ones people care about in context. One can also ask about the level a person, group or civilization most cares about. That is also how they default to understanding new talk.
This concept has important details that are difficult to understand. The posts linked up top offer discussions of four definitions that all point at the same dynamics. Each is stronger at capturing different elements.
As a more concise alternative, this post gathers together the most vital information.
First, the more straightforward definitions from 2020.
The Lion and Pandemic Definitions
The lion definition asks what each level means by ‘There is a lion across the river.’
Level 1: There’s a lion across the river.
Level 2: I don’t want to go (or have other people go) across the river.
Level 3: I’m with the popular kids who are too cool to go across the river.
Level 4: A firm stance against trans-river expansionism focus-grouped well with undecided voters in my constituency.
The pandemic definition changes the statement to ‘There is a pandemic heading our way from China.’
Level 1: “There’s a pandemic headed our way from China.”
Level 2: “I want you to act as if you think there might be a pandemic on our way from China” while hoping to still be interpreted by the listener as meaning “There’s a pandemic headed our way from China.”
Level 3: “I wish to associate with the group that claims there is a pandemic headed our way from China.”
Level 4 (old version): “It is advantageous for me to say there is a pandemic headed our way from China.”
Except no, that’s not quite right. The key issue with the lion and pandemic definitions is treating Level 4 as if it has motivations and does things for logical reasons. One can think strategically about level 4 implications but those operating on Level 4 mostly not only don’t do this, they have lost the ability to do so.
Therefore, the real situation more like:
Level 4 (new version): “It feels like the thing for me to say here that there is a pandemic headed our way from China.”
Level 1: Truth. Attempt to accurately share and describe physical reality.
Level 2: Manipulation of Perception. Lies. Attempt to shape perception of reality, so that others will act on that perception, without regard to whether it is true.
Level 3: Association. Attempting to change perception of one’s social position and alliances, rather than expecting anyone to act upon beliefs about physical reality. Requires maintaining some plausibility of the underlying physical claim.
Level 4: Manipulation and Intuition. Occasionally a strategic attempt to manipulate Level 3 dynamics. More centrally and commonly, a combination of intuitive attempts to manipulate associational dynamics and vibes, and adaptation executions that have abandoned any logic and all links to the underlying physical reality.
Or alternatively: Level 4: What GPT-4 would say.
Next, the original, symbolic definition.
The Symbolic Definition
Next the original version, from the 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard, which I will call The Symbolic Definition. This approach misses key elements of level 3: Its core relation to association and coalitional politics.
Level 1: The Simulacrum of the Real: a perfect copy that is a reflection of the real.
Level 2: The Simulacrum of the Model: a copy that no longer corresponds to the real, but references a representation of the real.
Level 3: The Simulacrum of the Hyperreal: a copy that is a product of the media, and has no basis in the real
Level 4: The Simulacrum of Simulacra: a copy that becomes autonomous, and no longer refers to any notion of the real at all.
Or, also in the original:
Level 1: It is the reflection of a profound reality.
Level 2: It masks and denatures a profound reality.
Level 3: It masks the absence of a profound reality.
Level 4: It has no relation to any reality whatsoever.
Or I would say it either this way:
Level 1: Symbols describe reality.
Level 2: Symbols pretend to describe reality.
Level 3: Symbols pretend to pretend to describe reality.
Level 4: Symbols need not pretend to describe reality.
Or another way:
Level 1: Symbols accurately describe reality.
Level 2: Symbols inaccurately describe reality.
Level 3: Symbols claim to describe reality.
Level 4: Symbols no longer claim to describe reality.
Or more simply:
Level 1: Truth.
Level 2: Lies about Truth.
Level 3: Lies claiming to be about Truth.
Level 4: Post Truth.
A concrete example suggested by Michael Vassar:
Level 1: A court reflects justice.
Level 2: A corrupt judge distorts justice.
fLevel 3: A Soviet show trial conceals the absence of real Soviet courts.
Level 4: A trial by ordeal or trial by combat lacks and denies the concept of justice entirely.
The Four Children Definition
Finally, the Four Children definition is based upon the first known recognition of this phenomenon: The story of four generations at the Seder table on Passover.
While in no way religious, The Four Children definition is high context to the Jewish experience and Passover ceremony, and relies on many details that many readers won’t know. If you don’t have and don’t want to explore that context, it won’t be useful and can be skipped. If the idea intrigues you, I highly recommend exploring it. It’s pretty great.
Level 1: The Wise Child. Asks for an accurate model.
Level 2: The Wicked Child. Asks what your model cares about.
Level 3: The Simple Child. Asks what things symbolize.
Level 4: The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask. Literally does not know how to ask.
Level 1 vs. Levels 2+3+4: Truth vs. Untruth
Level 1+3 vs. Levels 2+4: Authentic vs. Inauthentic
Levels 1+2 vs. Levels 3+4: Facts vs. Politics
Levels 1+2+4 vs. Level 3: The Agent vs. the Drone
Levels 1+2+3 vs. Level 4: The People vs. The Lizards
A Cast of Characters
L-None: The Nihilist says some things, then eats at Arby’s.
L-1: The Oracle speaks the truth, even if their voice trembles.
L-2: The Trickster says that which causes beliefs that cause the actions they want.
L-1 and L-2: The Sage says only true things that don’t have bad consequences.
L-3: The Drone sings songs and carries signs, mostly saying hurray for our side.
L-1 and L-3: The Lawyer says the true things that comprise the best argument for their position.
L-3 and L-4: The Politician ignores the object level and only considers politics.
L-4: The Lizard trusts their instincts and does that which creates or captures power.
L-All: The Pragmatist balances impact at all levels they are aware of slash care about when deciding what to say.
Notes on Levels
Level 1 is straightforward. Cherish the people, groups and moments you can spend here. This is where truth is sought. This is where doers get things done.
The key misunderstanding of level 2 is to think of it as necessarily consisting of lies, or that which is not.
What makes level 2 distinct from level 1 is not whether the statement is true, but whether or not you care whether it is true. A level 2 statement is meant to impact someone else’s level 1 model based on how you expect that to cause them to act. More often than not, this involves using mostly or entirely true statements – the truth is the best lie.
What makes level 2 distinct from level 3 is that you expect your target to attempt to use your statements to build a model of the world and act accordingly. Whereas at level 3 there is no expectation that your statements will be used in this fashion, with the statements instead primarily indicating where and with whom you wish to stand.
The central reason we needed new definitions, other than clarity, is because the Symbolic definition misses the essential nature of Level 3.
In particular, the Symbolic definition fails to notice Level 3’s concern with symbolism and associative implications.
This is a fundamentally new game being played, but it still bears a relationship to the physical world. The plausibility of the underlying Level 1 claim must be maintained. If one has gone against physical reality sufficiently that the Level 2 claim defending the position is sufficiently Obvious Nonsense, such claims can still be successfully called out. This causes the coalition and those backing the claim to lose face.
The transition to level 4 comes when people and coalitions no longer lose face for having their Obvious Nonsense pointed out, or even choose Obvious Nonsense intentionally to show they hold sufficient influence to get others to copy it.
The central reason to retain the Symbolic definition is it illustrates the nature of Level 4 in a way the newer definitions fail to do on their own.
Level 4 is often seen as having the same relation to Level 3 as Level 2 has to Level 1 (4::3 2::1). This can be helpful as a metaphor, but is only part of the picture.
The other part, its alien nature and opposition to logic and complete indifference to physical reality, wants not to be seen. It is important to see it.
Operation primarily on level 4, either as an individual, organization or civilization, causes one to lose contact with both physical reality and the ability to use reason.
A common mistake is to assume that most level 4 (and levels 2 and 3, but most importantly level 4) activity is selfishly motivated. This is not the case. Most operators who are primarily at level 4 are going with the vibe and what seems like the thing to do, executing adaptations that have long since lost their connection to any desired physical outcome. They have often lost their grip on reality and logic sufficiently that they have lost sight of what it would even mean to be selfish.
These different definitions are all grasping at different elements of the same central concept. They serve as alternative intuition pumps. Use whatever combination of them is most helpful to you, exploring previous posts in detail to the extent you find that useful.
Every statement and every action is, to some extent, communicating and having impact on all four levels at once. In any given time and place and interaction, a different subset of the four levels will be dominant. Sometimes care is given primarily or only to one level. Other times care is given to multiple levels, or even all four at once. Similarly, sometimes people are paying attention to some level(s) while ignoring or not caring about the others. Mismatches cause misunderstandings and failures to communicate.
True masters of communication are aware of all four levels at all times both when talking and when listening, keenly aware of the implications, often offering statements with multiple intended meanings on different levels.
Over time and in the absence of existential physical danger, overall conditions tend to pass through the four generations. Each level tends to ‘wins in a fight’ against the previous one. Thus the overall ‘simulacra level’ will trend higher over time. We go from truth, to distortion and manipulation, to symbolism and association and social games, to non-logical word associations, going with vibes and implicitly conspiring against other strategies.
Then the lack of connection to reality causes reality to smack us in the face sufficiently to, hopefully, reset the process and allow a new focus on ground truth.
If you know which levels someone is operating on, you can better interpret their statements and actions, and know in what ways they can be trusted. There is discussion of such archetypes in Simulacra Levels and their Interactions.
I think this would go down more smoothly with a few more examples of level 4. I found the "Level 4: A trial by ordeal or trial by combat lacks and denies the concept of justice entirely" pretty helpful for describing lizard brain/association diverging from reality, but still feeling correct enough for a person to choose it.
I wish the levels were ever all that clear in any real-world interaction. It's always a mix, and usually confounded by signaling (of virtue and capabilities) UNRELATED to the nominal topic of communication - people trying to win points or show their sophistication in how they think.
Trying to win points sounds like level 2, and showing sophistication sounds like level 3 or 4.
(Level 3 would be: "This is a model of reality that educated people seem to use. I will learn this model and use it in all discussions. I am not really interested in checking whether the map fits the territory." Level 4 would be: "This is the response that an educated person would give at this point. I have no idea and I do not care whether there is an underlying model. Followup questions will be handled the same way, or evaded.")
That said, the descriptions "trying to win points" and "showing sophistication" convey the idea more easily than trying to fit it into the simulacra framework.
While reading this, I figured that the information in this essay might benefit from being presented in a table format. So here it is (with all content copied 1:1 from Zvi's essay, except for edits marked with brackets or ellipses). Let me know if it actually proves useful, and feel free to request edit access.
Another contrast: Levels 1+4 vs. 2+3: Not Pretending vs. pretending.
I really like that last bit about chronological cycles of increasing S-level to "win against" the current level, until physical reality smacks us in the face and we reset. Let me try something:
I feel like this model omits an essential part of the discourse: people believe they operate at level 1, "model and describe the physical world, seeking to convey true information because it is true", but upon careful analysis it can be any of the four.
I think the real work can be found here: how do we pump against this effect?
I find it difficult to think about this. I think there's a simulacra levels post that I really want to exist but doesn't yet, and this isn't it but it's probably not really trying to be so okay.
Here are some things going through my head. Some of them are specifically related to this post, but others are about simulacra levels in general. A bunch of overlap between them.
These definitions seem to disagree with each other at levels 3 and 4. By my readings of them, sometimes 3 is describing social reality, in others it's attempting to change it. Sometimes 4 is attempting to change social reality, sometimes it's just vibing.
(In the lion definition, "I’m with the popular kids", if said out loud, would usually read to me like a clumsy attempt to become with the popular kids. So it's difficult for me to read that example and not feel like 3 is an attempt to change social reality. But my understanding is that that was intended as "at level 3, they are saying that because they actually are with the people who don't want to go across the river". And then level 4 was intended as "I'm changing which group of people I'm with according to what seems advantageous to me".)
Why not say that level 3 is describing social reality, 4 is trying to change it, and 5 as just vibing?
If level 2 is lying about physical reality, and level 3 or 4 is attempting to change social reality, why the change from "lying" to "attempting to change"? Is that just because lies about social reality are more entwined with social reality, than lies about physical reality are with physical reality?
In what sense are these levels? Is there a progression through them (and it's much rarer or nonexistent to progress in other orders like 1, 3, 2, 4)? What is doing the progressing - a person, conversation, subculture, culture?
What does it mean when you say a particular definition is "not quite right"?
Is the claim here "when people leave level 3 they mostly lose this ability"? (Assuming people undergo a progression from 3 to 4.) But it's still meaningful to lump them with the people who retain it in the same level? Is [the difference between those who retain and those who lose the ability], a difference in the people themselves, such that we could predict whether or not they'll retain when they leave 3; or is it a difference in the circumstances under which they leave 3; or something else? For that matter, how do we know they've mostly lost the ability?
I really like your posts about Simulacra levels, and I feel that they are a great lens to view human behavior through. I jotted down my interpretation of them here a while back, happy to hear any thoughts/feedback if you have any.
Chat GPT gives some interesting analysis when asked, though I think not amazingly accurate. (The sentence I gave it, from here is a weird example, though)
Typo thread: (feel free to delete)